Nuclear Physics

Nuclear Physics: Definition, Fields of Application, Types and Examples

Nuclear physics: Definition, fields of application, types and examples

Nuclear physics is a branch of physics that deals with the study of atomic nuclei, subatomic particles, and nuclear interactions. It focuses on understanding the structure and properties of atomic nuclei, as well as the forces and nuclear reactions that occur in them.

Nuclear physics covers a wide range of topics, including radioactive decay,  nuclear fission ,  nuclear fusion , radioactivity, interactions of charged particles with matter, induced nuclear reactions, and the production of energy through nuclear processes. .

The formation and disintegration of isotopes and the generation of elements in the Universe are also investigated, as well as radiation and its effects on matter and living beings.

Advances in nuclear physics have led to the development of practical applications in various fields, such as nuclear power generation, nuclear medicine, radiocarbon dating, astrophysics research, and the production of materials and radioisotopes for industrial and medical use.

What Does Nuclear Physics Study?

Nuclear physics covers several fundamental topics. Below are some of the main topics related to this discipline:

Nuclear Structure

In the field of nuclear structure, nuclear physics studies the composition and properties of atomic nuclei, including their size, shape, charge, magnetic moment, and charge distribution.

In it, the internal structure of the nuclei and how the protons and neutrons are organized within them are also investigated.

Radioactive Decay

Examines the processes by which unstable nuclei decay, emitting particles and radiation. Different types of disintegration are studied, such as:

Nuclear Reactions

Nuclear physicists are concerned with the investigation of interactions between nuclei and subatomic particles. This includes two types of reactions:

  • Nuclear fission, where a heavy nucleus splits into two or more fragments

  • Nuclear fusion, where two light nuclei combine to form a heavier one. The conditions and factors that affect these reactions are explored.

Nuclear Models

The development of theoretical and mathematical models to describe and predict the behavior of atomic nuclei is carried out through nuclear physics.

These atomic models include the shell model, the liquid drop model, and the particle model, which provide different perspectives on nuclear structure and properties.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear physics includes the study of  nuclear energy  to generate electrical energy through nuclear fission and fusion reactions.

In this field, the applications of nuclear energy in electricity production, nuclear reactors and related technologies are investigated. It includes the challenges associated with the safety and management of nuclear waste.

Nuclear Medicine

This field of physics includes focuses on the application of nuclear technology in medicine. Nuclear medicine includes concepts such as the production of radioisotopes for diagnosis and treatment of diseases, nuclear imaging, and radiation therapy.

Nuclear Astrophysics

Nuclear astrophysics is the study of nuclear processes that occur in stars, such as stellar nucleosynthesis, where heavier elements are produced from nuclear reactions.

7 Examples of Nuclear Physics

Here are some examples of nuclear physics phenomena and applications:

  1. Dating systems for archaeological elements through radioactive decay: A classic example of nuclear physics is radioactive decay. The decay of the radioactive isotope of carbon-14 (C-14) is used to determine the age of archaeological and geological objects.

  2. Source of thermal energy in nuclear power plants: Nuclear fission is the process in which a heavy nucleus, such as uranium-235 (U-235), splits into two smaller nuclei, releasing a large amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation. This phenomenon is the basis of nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs.

  3. The energy generated by the Sun: Nuclear fusion is the process in which two light nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium, combine to form a heavier nucleus, releasing an enormous amount of energy. Nuclear fusion is the source of energy inside the Sun and we seek to replicate this process on Earth to generate clean and sustainable energy.

  4. Production of isotopes and radioisotopes for nuclear medicine: Nuclear physics is used to produce radioactive isotopes and radioisotopes used in various applications. For example, technetium-99m (Tc-99m) is a radioisotope widely used in nuclear medicine for the diagnosis of diseases.

  5. Nuclear Imaging: Positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) are nuclear imaging techniques used in medicine to obtain detailed images of the inside of the body and diagnose diseases.

  6. Stellar nucleosynthesis is the process by which heavier elements are formed in the core of stars. This is an example of how nuclear physics helps us understand how chemical elements are produced in the cosmos.

  7. Therapy for the treatment of cancer: Nuclear physics is used in radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer. Radiation therapy uses beams of ionizing radiation to damage and destroy cancer cells, while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy cells.

Who Are the Most Important Nuclear Physicists in History?

Below are some of the most important scientists in the field of nuclear physics:

  • Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937): Considered one of the fathers of nuclear physics, Rutherford performed key experiments that led to the discovery of the atomic nucleus and proposed the planetary model of the atom.
  • Marie Curie (1867-1934): A pioneer in the field of radioactivity, Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines (Physics and Chemistry). Her research into radioactivity and the discovery of the elements radium and polonium laid the foundations for nuclear physics and nuclear medicine.
  • Enrico Fermi (1901-1954): Italian physicist known for his contributions to quantum theory and nuclear physics. Fermi carried out pioneering experiments in nuclear fission and led the first controlled nuclear reactor in Chicago.
  • Niels Bohr (1885-1962): Famous for his Bohr model of the atom, Bohr conducted important research in nuclear physics and was one of the pioneers in understanding the structure of the atomic nucleus and describing nuclear reactions.
  • James Chadwick (1891-1974): Chadwick discovered the subatomic particle neutrons, which was fundamental to understanding the structure and stability of atomic nuclei.
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967): Known primarily for his leadership of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer also made important contributions in quantum theory and nuclear physics.

Although, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is a very important scientist in the field of nuclear physics, best known for his theory of relativity.

However, his contributions to nuclear physics were also significant, especially for his famous energy equation, E=mc², which establishes the equivalence between energy and mass. This equation is essential to understanding the release of energy in nuclear reactions, such as fission and fusion.


Published: May 15, 2023
Last review: May 15, 2023